The best memoirs, essays, and fiction that inspired me to write

Who am I?

I’m a Brooklyn-born writer of what’s now called “creative nonfiction,” and whatever literary success I’ve had, I attribute in part to having studied the works of Hunter S. Thompson, Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, and Joseph Heller. I’ve assimilated their voices and used them as guides to help me find my own voice. Read any of my books and you’ll find subtle (and at times not so subtle) echoes of this Holy Quintet. My latest book, A Brooklyn Memoir, is in part an homage to Miller’s Black Spring.


I wrote...

A Brooklyn Memoir: My Life as a Boy

By Robert Rosen,

Book cover of A Brooklyn Memoir: My Life as a Boy

What is my book about?

A Brooklyn Memoir is an unsentimental journey through mid-century Flatbush, where Auschwitz survivors and WWII vets lived side by side and the war lingered like a mass hallucination.

Meet Bobby, a local kid who shares a shabby apartment with his status-conscious mother and bigoted father, a soda jerk haunted by memories of the Nazi death camp he helped liberate. Flatbush, to Bobby, is a world of brawls with neighborhood “punks” and Hebrew school tales of Adolf Eichmann’s daring capture. Drawn to images of mushroom clouds and books about executions, Bobby turns the hatred he senses everywhere against himself, but ultimately transcends the toxic forces that surround him. From a perch in his father’s candy store, Bobby provides a darkly comic child’s-eye view of postwar America.

The books I picked & why

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

By Hunter S. Thompson,

Book cover of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Why this book?

I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in college and it blew my mind. I’d never read anything like this outrageous tale of a journalist in search of the American Dream. The plot: Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone send Thompson to Las Vegas to cover, respectively, a motorcycle race and a district attorneys convention. Thompson, high on hallucinogenic drugs and ether, and with his attorney in tow, takes the notion of “new journalism” into a hilarious new dimension. Thompson was the kind of journalist I wanted to be: a truth-teller who made his own rules. I’ve since read the book about 25 times and it’s made me laugh every time.


Tropic of Cancer

By Henry Miller,

Book cover of Tropic of Cancer

Why this book?

I read Tropic of Cancer at the beginning of my writing career, soon after I’d begun living on my own for the first time. Miller’s life as a Brooklyn boy in Paris, struggling to survive and to write, seemed similar in so many ways to my own life in Manhattan. I’ve since read Tropic of Cancer multiple times and have portions memorized. I went through a phase where everything I wrote came out sounding like Henry Miller—that’s how taken I was by his voice. Miller taught me that it’s possible to write a great book that’s voice-driven rather than plot-driven.


Portnoy's Complaint

By Philip Roth,

Book cover of Portnoy's Complaint

Why this book?

Portnoy’s Complaint came out when I was 16. I heard my aunt telling my parents about it. She’d gotten Portnoy from a book-of-the-month club and said it was “disgusting” and wanted to get it out of her house. I didn’t understand how a book titled “Port Noise Complaint” could be disgusting. What were people complaining about? Squawking seagulls? Foghorns? She gave the book to my parents, and a few days later I was sitting at my desk, doing homework, when I noticed it on the shelf: Oh, it’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I started reading it. When I got to chapter 2, “Whacking Off,” I understood what my aunt was upset about. Portnoy is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.


Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

By Joan Didion,

Book cover of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Why this book?

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a master class in how to write a personal essay. Every essay Didion writes in any of her books is beautifully rendered—she doesn’t waste a word—as well as emotionally engaging and well reported and researched. Whatever she’s writing about—politics, California, rock musicians—you are there with her, on the scene. The book’s preface explains how and why Didion did what she did and contains this nugget of truth: Writers are always selling somebody out. And the title essay is simply the best piece of writing I’ve ever read about Haight-Ashbury and the 1960s.


Catch-22

By Joseph Heller,

Book cover of Catch-22

Why this book?

Catch-22 is a laugh-out-loud funny and grotesquely horrific antiwar satire that exposes the absurdity of the military bureaucracy and of war. It focuses on Yossarian, a WWII bombardier who doesn’t want to fly any more missions. The book is so complex and detailed you’ll find something new in it with each reading. The title, meaning a dilemma with no solution, has found its way into the English language—you can look it up in Webster’s. The catch-22 in Catch-22 is this: If you wanted to get out of combat duty you had to be crazy. But anybody who wanted to get out of combat duty wasn’t really crazy. Many years ago, when I was writing about the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, I often turned to Catch-22 for inspiration.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in journalists, World War 2, and California?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about journalists, World War 2, and California.

Journalists Explore 98 books about journalists
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